A few weeks ago, everyone was talking about Valve's new-hire employee handbook
, the little Utopian guide to working at one of the most extraordinary companies in the world.
In the days following its leak, I called up some older hands in game development
to ask for their reactions to the book. It's interesting that every single person
who I called had read the booklet. And yes, they all had opinions.
Most said that the faults within Valve's approach - its reliance on talent, difficulties in tracking failures quickly enough and its unsuitability for certain types of personalities - were worth the trouble. Indeed, pretty much anything is worth the trouble if it gets us away from production-line mentalities, micro-management torture and group-think sensibilities.
One person who offered an inherently valuable viewpoint is Mike Capps, president of Epic Games.
Back in 2008, Capps made some comments about the long hours worked by game developers, saying that it came with the career. He was slammed by developer Greg Costikyan and accused of "exploitative practices". Capps was forced to face down a forum-storm
, explaining that he had merely meant to say that game developers who wish to work a rigid 9-5 week are less useful than those who are flexible. He pointed out that this was no different than a lawyer, a journalist or a doctor and did not mean the same thing as demanding that they work longer hours.
At DICE earlier this year I remember being deeply impressed by Capps' performance in a panel with Ted Price and Frank Pierce
on how best to treat people. It was self-evident to these guys that their staff would work way longer hours than their contract demanded, and their challenge was to make sure their people didn't screw their lives up by working too hard.
Of course, this suggests rules and management, things that the Valve doctrine, in many ways, rejects. So, according to Capps, part of the employer's responsibility is to manage the talent's predisposition to working crazy hours because, sooner or later, crunch will come and it will be necessary, as part of a creative team, to work silly hours. We all have to do it from time to time, unless we are working in some dismal job that involves clocking in and out.
While acknowledging the advantages of Valve's system, and that company's record for excellence, Capps says that hierarchies can and do offer benefits to employees, and shouldn't be seen as merely throw-backs to the paternalistic systems of yesteryear.
He says, "The bigger we get as a company, the harder it is for everyone here to feel comfy just walking into my office and telling me what I'm doing wrong. There's a lot of guys here who would do that in a heartbeat because they've been in the trenches with me but there's folks here who only know me as the president of a multinational.
"An engine programmer on the editor team, if he's not happy with the tasks he's doing, can talk to the editor lead or if he's not happy with the editor lead he can talk to our director of engineering or he can talk with me. But there's a lot of different folks you can chat with about your assignments and what you're doing and whether you're happy about the people you're working with.
"If there's no hierarchy and you're just two hundred people standing in a building, who do you talk to about what's making you uncomfortable who can help you to fix it? You need to know who to call on and where the specializations are internally."
He says Epic aims for as much creative liberty as possible. "There's a lot to be said for freeing people's creative impulses. We try to do that as much as we can because that's where most of our cool ideas come from."
But he says there is a balance between full creative freedom and the inevitable pressures that come from deadlines and from customers.
"I don't think we're quite so laissez-faire about it [as Valve]. What we tell people when we hire them is 'you need to tell us what you want to do and what you're good at and then we'll make clear what needs to be done'."
He adds, "If somebody really wants to be a painter but they don't have any painting talent and they're a great programmer, I can't afford to let them paint all day long so they're going to have to program. But that doesn't mean we won't help them learn how to paint and give them the resources to learn. Maybe someday they'll be a great painter too. And then if we don't need programming but we need painting, well, now you're a painter because that's what we need to do to get this game shipped."
He stresses that the 'factory' system of placing people in job-title-specific roles is destructive. "We're certainly closer to Valve's self-organizing process but I think we tend to try for efficiency as well as creativity and that means you balance between the two."
In a company of Epic's size, different departments tend to self-organize around their particular roles and the personalities that have the most influence. Clearly, the team that trouble-shoots Unreal Engine technical inquiries is going to behave differently than the art department.
He says, "We do company meetings almost every week and we try to remind people what the high level goals of the company are. But I think each team handles it very differently. Some game teams will organize around a very rapid 'scrum' style approach where they're doing sprints and everybody is working together on combat this month and everybody is working together on experience systems the next month. And then we have teams like the Engine team who mix their time between adding new features and fixing bugs or optimizing for games that are shipping soon."
Ultimately, he says the rules are there to protect employees and to make sure the business hits its targets. "Day to day, the individuals are figuring out what they need to do to be successful."
Colin Campbell has been writing about the games industry for 25 years. He currently works for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx.